We were driving from Margaret River to Albany and desperately needed a comfort stop. But towns were few and far between on this empty country road.
The bushland to either side of the alleged highway was too open and too muddy. Intensely green, though.
We’d planned to stop for coffee but there was nowhere en route. We had s long drive to go, to get to Albany and (as usual) we had not booked ahead. Soon morning coffee was drifting into an early lunch, but the need to find a loo of sorts (in Australia on the roads, I won’t dignify these with the euphemism “bathroom”) was becoming more urgent. Even an outback hole in the ground would have been welcome. Avoid the snakes on the path, check under the seat for redback spiders, and relief!
Then — a town! Well, a village… no, maybe just a collection of buildings. “Welcome to Rocky Gully” was on a sign somewhere. No shops we could find. We’d done one loop of the whole housing settlement (two minutes and about 100 metres in total) and headed back to the main road.
Hang on, a fuel stop! We pulled in. Mean Street Café was stencilled on the wall. At the door, a sign with yellow L-plate warned, “”We are still learning. May stall unexpectedly. We thank you for your patience.”
“Sorry, we’ve not got any petrol yet,” the proprietor told us. Today’s our first day open, we’re still getting ready.”
By this time we were walking awkwardly with our breakfast cuppa having thoroughly worked through our bodies.
“Can we use the loo?” I asked.
“Sure, no worries,” they said. “Thataway.”
Lovely. Scented soap, pristine porcelain, not snake or redback spider in sight.
When I emerged, the next pressing need surged to the fore. “Is there anywhere around here where we can get a feed?”
“Well, we’re a bit short of food supplies, the delivery was due yesterday, but we can do a ham and cheese toastie for you. And coffee, of course.”
It was too much to hope for, that they could do lactose-free, gluten-free, but we were travelling with my lactose-free milk and gluten-free bread. I dashed back to the car for supplies which mine hostess skilfully turned into a delicious, if impromptu, meal for us. While we waited, I wandered around the small shop. They were selling some very bespoke t-shirts and the rock ‘n roll/biker theme was obvious, especially with a perfectly-chromed Harley-Davidson parked beside the pot-belly stove.
It was a cold day outside, grey clouds hanging low and heavy. We enjoyed the break from the long sit in the car, enjoyed the toasted ham and cheese sandwich and the coffee was excellent. The company was fun, we grooved along to Meatloaf and had a lovely chat to the staff. For their first day’s customers, they did very well. But then, the level of friendliness is typical of almost any Aussie country road stop.
I stashed my milk and bread back into the car and we got back on the road again. Only a few more hours to go…
Bedraggled, tired chorister on the train home — from December 2021
As background, I’m in two choirs. One is a choir specialising in ‘old’ music, medieval and Renaissance in a number of different languages (including various archaic English dialects). We perform in costume (see other articles of mine here about going slightly nuts during various lockdowns when making historic clothing).
The other choir is a female close harmony acapella group.
I love singing with both these choirs, each has a very different style and is focussed on performance with a difference. The look, and the sound, in each case is part of the public appeal.
When performing out in the open, it is much more challenging to be heard. There is a lot of background sound from traffic, people passing by and even birds (it’s the time of year for the dreaded koel and channel bill cuckoo, both predatory cuckoos that make a lot of noise). Sound can simply dissipate into the wide open spaces, so performance is harder work. The payoff, however, is seeing random members of the public stop and listen.
Informal carols performance in the street — our last rehearsal for the year. 2022
Around Sydney there are multiple performance spaces for Christmas. The prized location is by the Christmas tree in Martin Place, Sydney’s answer to New York’s Times Square. However, it also brings challenges. The chiming clock, for one. The old GPO (General Post Office) is one of Sydney’s historic landmarks. The GPO is now the Fullerton Hotel, but I have fond memories as a small child going to the GPO with my mother, and hearing the clock chime out the hour to be heard around Sydney. It’s a Westminster chime that calls out the quarter hours too.
The Renaissance choir was one of the first choirs to help launch Sydney’s 2022 Christmas entertainment program at midday on 26 November. We’d done the same gig in 2021 and had experience of the challenges as well as the delights. Competing with the clock is one challenge. The Christmas tree is a whole other level of loud kitsch.
This year at that first gig, we had random members of the public, generally children and some other individuals with no social filter, come and stand next to us mid-performance to take selfies. One young woman actually ‘conducted’ the choir while standing next to the choir director who, amazingly, maintained her composure.
ROH at the big Christmas tree, Martin Place, Sydney, November 2022
The public are wonderful, appreciative and enthusiastic. Some more so, especially those flying high on various substances with dubious legality. We soldiered on and chalked it up to experience, and learning how to value every member of the public who is happily enjoying our performance each in their own way.
We’d travelled to this gig by car, as I was a bit frail. I had a small stool to sit on, a challenge in a Tudor gown, but it got me through. It was thankfully not as hot as it can get in a Sydney summer, but we were facing into the western sun and we had to manage.
The gown is a work in progress. So’s the hair. Martin Place, Sydney, November 2022.
For this first gig we had access to a changeroom, but for most of these, we have to turn up already in costume, often having travelled by public transport. Renaissance clothing is not always compatible with train travel, so a lot of us have basic clothing which simply goes underneath the costume.
Martin Place was a venue for other performers too. Immediately we finished, we heard a violinist (well amplified) playing carols on the other side of the Christmas tree. He had very considerately waited until we were done.
My other choir had a performance two weeks later, in the Sydney Botanic Gardens (New York analogy again, think Central Park). Getting there was more difficult than usual. There was trackwork on the nearest railway station, but thankfully the light rail was in operation. My costume was a white pantsuit (sparkly scarf on top) and I didn’t want to risk it getting dirty on public transport so I wore a voluminous dress over it all as a sort of protective smock. I had a short walk from the light rail terminus past the Sydney Opera House and up a set of steps to the Botanic Gardens. There was a pleasant evening breeze blowing from Sydney Harbour. I found the destination and removed my cover-all at last, and put on the sparkly red scarf. Visually, we’re a lot about bling!
The performance space here has been decorated with perfectly conical Christmas trees coated with sparkling LEDs, a veritable forest of delight. Around this was an array of market stalls. Another larger sound shell was the main performance space. The area opened up to the public at 6 pm, and mike checks and technical run-through was set for 5 pm.
The performance space in Sydney Botanic Gardens. Christmas 2022. My masked main groupie on far left.
Both stage areas.
Here is where we began to feel we were in a duelling match. Of course both performance spaces would need to do their sound checks at the same time, the other performers in the sound shell were scheduled to start at 7 pm, just as we finished. We still had choristers arriving and needing to be added to our sound check, while we could hear the loudly-amplified rehearsal from the big sound shell of various Christmas songs. They also had a brass section — very good players, but very loud. There was a lot of overlap in repertoire — we heard the other performers singing some of the same pieces we had also scheduled to sing. Different arrangements, thankfully. Our acapella choir had microphones provided but we needed to place our singers in such a way that the sound would be balanced. We also needed to hear the pitch pipe notes, and when the sound shell was loudly playing, “We Need a Little Christmas”, this was challenging. However, after so much Covid lockdown and cancellations over the last few years, we definitely felt we needed a little Christmas at last.
By the time the gates officially opened at 6 pm, all sound checks had been finished. Our performance got under way with no competition from the sound shell. Everything was actually well-organised and timed to perfection.
When we perform, our energy is up and we’re focussed both on watching the director for cues, and ensuring the audience has a good time. As a result, there is a performance high that follows. When our last set finished, we heard the sound shell start up with their show. Our audience evaporated and headed towards the new entertainment, and we followed, audience ourselves now. We had time now to shop for fudge and floss, to sing along in the crowd and just generally relax.
Fudge and fairy floss (aka cotton candy for those in the US) do not a meal make, so hubby (my main groupie) and I headed back to Circular Quay to find food. We avoided the Opera House concourse which is not only potentially expensive, but populated with roving gangs of marauding seagulls. “Nice seafood basket you have there,” you can imagine them saying. “Shame if something happened to it.” But as with most protection rackets, throwing them a few morsels only serves to encourage them. I’ve eaten sushi there in the past, having to eat with hands constantly covering the food and still almost losing my lunch to the feathered fiends.
We found a quiet corner inside City Extra, a 24-hour eatery originally founded to feed the media packs and hacks of yester-year. Outside the window we watched the Manly ferry on its regular commuter runs across the Harbour while the sun set over the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Last night the Renaissance choir was back at Martin Place. I had asked the director in jest if she’d permit me to wear red glitter nail polish for the performance, because the modern acapella choir had performances bracketing the Tudor one. Her response was expected. “Rich fabrics yes, glitter nail polish no. It was not a thing in the Renaissance.”
This time I arrived by public transport with my main groupie, about 45 minutes before our call (which was itself an hour before performance). Plenty of time for coffee, and to get changed.
Again, what we wear when travelling is directed by what we need to wear during performance. I travelled wearing my white puff-sleeved pirate shirt (another lockdown sewing project) and green linen pedal-pusher pants. My tie-on pocket was useful for easy access to my phone and travel card (payment is a simple tap-on, tap-off) and would remain for access under my Tudor gown. Hair tied back in bunches. Not too weird for a Sydney summer.
The street-ready under-gown wear. The pirate shirt doubles as chemise. The pocket hangs from a belt and is accessible under the Tudor gown via pocket slits. Note the fallen bark from the gum tree — Australian trees are snarky in summer, they trash the yard.
We ordered the coffee while I was in pirate-garb, then while we waited, I unzipped the costume backpack and started to put on the layers. Underskirt (it ties on front and back apron-style). Then the outer skirt, and this is where people began to notice. The outer costume was once upon a time a quilt cover. It’s red-and-silver brocade, and very full.
Sewing the Tudor gown at my pop-up driveway sewing station.
The bodice is boned (half a packet of cable ties) and doesn’t allow the wearer to lean back in an armchair, for example. So I waited and enjoyed my coffee. Other bits went on instead. Wrist ruffles (stitched to elastic bands, easy to pull on). A ruff. The two parts to a French hood (red satin and black velvet). Finally the bodice. I had begun to hand-sew this while in hospital a few weeks earlier (kidney stone) and managed to finish the costume at midnight the day before the first performance on 26 November.
Hospital bed sewing — cable ties as boning. Laptop had some useful instructions. Nursing staff were very understanding.
Completed boned stays (‘pair of bodies’) ready for brocade outer layer.
I laced on the bodice at last. I must have been eating too much — the front of the bodice seemed to have a wider lacing gap than usual. However, by the time I’d finished my coffee, the lacing was loose as my body warmed up the boning. I laced in tighter with no difficulty. I’m still learning how to wear this gown.
Lacing up over coffee in the Fullerton Hotel, Martin Place, Sydney.December 2022.
By this time, other choristers had arrived and were costumed. We made our way to the warm-up space and met our ‘handler’ from the organisers. She looked about 40 Kg wringing wet. “I know I’m tiny, but I’m feisty. If anyone hassles you, I’ll be there keeping them away.”
We made our way to the now-familiar position by the large, green and red Christmas tree. It’s huge. And, as we know, it’s wired for a sound and light show to start at 8 pm. We were to perform four sets of 25 minutes each from 6 pm, ensuring to pause over the hour so we weren’t competing with the GPO clock striking the Westminster chimers in full plus the hour.
We swung into our sets and quickly gathered an audience. One of our choristers is a very strong bass, he led two of the ancient carols in Latin and despite being completely unaccompanied and unamplified in an open space, was easily heard through the entire area. He is very impressive.
As with our first performance there, we not only had an appreciative audience, we also had a few interesting interlopers. We were very impressed when our handler deftly redirected a small child who was running around the choristers. A group of women already well-lubricated for a fun night in the city posed for selfies, but far enough away to only attract a single step forward from our handler. But she was ready. The partying women joined in and sang along with one of our better-known carols, but were not disruptive.
Then a tanned cowboy ambled up. Bare chest the texture of old boots, wearing only threadbare jeans with decorative buckle. And a cowboy hat. He came right up to our harmonium player then tried to lean over to inspect the mandolin. Our handler came in fast to redirect him, but he was determined. However, she was polite but firm. We paused our performance while the audience was being distracted by the alternative floor show. Finally Cowboy began to make his way from our space, but suddenly he fell and lay on the ground, not moving. Our handler held up her hand to us, asking us to stop. We’d just blown the pitch note for our next song, but paused. And waited. Our handler signalled for a security man to come over. Phones were out, possible calling for an ambulance. Cowboy started to sit up and dust himself off. He appeared mostly unhurt despite landing hard on cobbles with absolutely no fabric protecting his upper body. He had a large bruise rapidly developing on his elbow, which swelled alarmingly fast. Alarming to me, that is. Cowboy didn’t seem to notice, he was clearly feeling no pain.
The audience waited patiently, but also were watching the whole show closely, as if perhaps wondering if Cowboy was part of the entertainment. He was finally led off towards the first aid area so they could check him over. All told, the organisers managed the event safely and efficiently, with consideration and compassion. Our handler was back with us even as we began our next song.
We finally sang what we thought was our last song, only to hear our handler say, “You have two more minutes.” So we began “Pastime With Good Company” (written by Henry VIII) but only got one verse in before, behind us, the huge Christmas tree woke up and began to sing. We were finished. For the evening, and for the year, with the Renaissance choir. As we assembled for one final photo, we heard the amplified violinist start up, as soon as the Christmas tree was finished its set.
Group shot after the performance. Time to put the costumes away for a few months.
Tomorrow I have two performances with the acapella choir. I’m looking forward to it. I’ve almost finished applying multiple coats of glitter red nail polish. There are two more acapella performances after tomorrow (including another one at the Martin Place Christmas tree, which I now know to be set to go off two minutes early — duly warned).
Red glitter, tinsel, bling, sparkle. Because We Need A Little Christmas indeed.
Like a convalescent invalid, the sun made brief appearances on our last day in Margaret River, sunshine in a watery sky. We’d checked out local art galleries and admired the technique and individuality in a wide range of art forms. In one gallery, the manager quietly worked on the books while the more overt security (a large poodle) was tethered to a sculpture nearby.
The view from our hotel room overlooked a few heritage buildings nestled into a wooded area, so naturally we had to check those out. Sadly, they were closed but a wander around the outside told us a great deal about how the local historic society has been working to preserve and teach about the early development of Margaret River.
When we’d first arrived in Margaret River, we’d noticed the rather curious-looking town of Cowaramup just to the north, so we went back to explore. On the way we stopped in to the Margaret River Dairy Factory to indulge, and stock up on local gourmet cheese.
The small village of Cowaramup is about the same size as our own home village, with a population of less than 2,500. Originally it was a siding on the Busselton to Augusta railway, no longer operational. However, the highway runs through Cowaramup, which is in the centre of the Margaret River wine region. Like our home village, the main business precinct is small but essential — a pharmacy, post office, bakery, various cafés, a farm supplies store and a specialty store with local artifacts. We saw the inside of a number of these shops when we took shelter with each brief dump of rain and/or hail.
The Margaret River area is famous for dairy and wine. Cowaramup is actually named for the local Noongar word cowara, for the purple-crowned lorikeet. However, the local dairy farming has now given the place the local colloquial name of “Cowtown”. We heard another local refer to it as “Mootown”. The nearby surf spot, Cowaramup Bombora (which has been the location of some giant surf rides) is locally known as “Cow Bombie”.
So what’s a small town to do, to bring in the tourists trade?
They ‘planted’ cows. Forty-two statues of them, meandering down the main street, chewing their cud beside the post office, settled near the bakery. And it worked, at least for us. I’d seen them several days earlier when we’d first arrived, driving through to the Margaret River township itself. And it was those cow statues that I’d glimpsed that had me wanting to go back and find out more.
And, of course, get a coffee.
Australia does good coffee, as a rule. We’re famous for it. Wherever you go, even a tiny roadhouse in the middle of nowhere in a place with a population you could count on the fingers of one hand (often a hand that’s had a nasty accident with an axe) you can get a great cup of coffee.
Cowaramup was no different. While we sheltered from yet another dump of grapeshot hail, we enjoyed great coffee and a snack, and explored the shops we could safely reach while staying dry. Meanwhile the local people of Cowaramup went about their daily business stepping over and around gawping tourists like us (with a smile — very friendly people).
“All this rain must be helping things grow,” I remarked. We’d seen how lush the forests were. A hedge maze had looked interesting on the brochures, but was, unfortunately, closed while we were there.
We bought a couple of crusty bread rolls in the bakery to enjoy with our cheese, and headed back to Margaret River, exploring along a few more side roads.
Heading back into Margaret River in the mid-afternoon, we saw a colourful street library and, of course, I had to stop to check it out.
The street library was on the fence of a garden, hand-painted signs referring to Margaret River Organic Garden.
As a self-confessed garden junkie, I surged right in. The garden was organic in many senses — bits of improvised or more detailed garden sculpture were immersed in foliage and flowers spilling over borders.
With all the rain, there was a lot of muddy, boggy areas but the plants clearly were enjoying the attention.
As we rounded a corner on the path, we came upon a woman up a ladder, pruning. A wayward branch was tangled, we jumped forward to grab it and help pull it down into the wheelbarrow. Thus ensued a fascinating exploration into the people, the history and the plants of this amazing, colourful space. It’s a communal space, an education space and simply a place to be.
We wandered with our new friend and pulled weeds together until the sun (what there was of it) was low in the sky. Before we left, our friend gave us a book about the Organic Garden, a beautiful book with contributions from some of the many gardeners who have spent time working on this community initiative.
We spent our last evening in Margaret River at a tapas bar we’d discovered and loved, enjoying local food and wines and listening to the local people enjoying a pleasant evening at the end of their working day.
We’ve had enough rain this year. We didn’t actually get soaked to the skin at any stage in WA (as I’d heard had happened repeatedly to family and friends needing to do the damp dash from car to house in the sudden downpours). But there really was a lot of water around.
As we drove to Margaret River we hoped that perhaps we would soon emerge from the belt of rain and fog, into winter sunshine. However, all along the highway we could see deep puddles and paddocks with part-submerged fences.
It didn’t augur well.
We had planned a few stops along the way for coffee with a view, but with rain persisting and views misted out by heavy clouds and rain, we pushed on.
Margaret River loomed out of the rain, green and gorgeous. Towering trees, trunks straight up into the clouds, gave an added sense of peace.
We looked at each other. This was a good place to stop. We were done with travel for the day.
Of course we hadn’t booked ahead. We often don’t. It’s part of the adventure, to also be free to keep moving on if we feel it’s not quite what we’re looking for.
After a slow loop of the town, we pulled back in to the most likely-looking place. No Vacancy. But over the road they had a spot. Just as picturesque, a bit more secluded, and thankfully on the ground floor.
We waited in reception for yet another cloudburst to pass, and explored their wall of brochures. With more bad weather forecast, outdoor activities were off our list. In a break in the downpour, we dashed to our room and settled down under the doona to explore our undercover options.
“There are caves!” Jeff exclaimed. I looked at the information. We chose the nearest and one with fewer steps. At least it would be undercover.
Next morning we drove towards the cave of our choice, Mammoth Cave, through hailstorm. It was tiny hail, about grapeshot size. But there was so much of it. In places it looked like it had been snowing. We’re used to hailstorms being a passing thing, one scud and that’s it for the day. But this kept going. However, we appeared to have driven out of it by the time we got to the cave.
It was cold, heavily overcast and miserable, so I pulled on the medieval hood I’d brought on the trip to maybe mend buttonholes — another sewing project for spare minutes. The hood kept my ears from aching in the wind and the ‘skirt’ of the hood was excellent for keeping my neck warm.
Our car was parked right outside the entrance (and shop) for Mammoth Cave. Today was clearly a slow day. We bought our tickets, got our self-guided digital player and ear bud and set off. In between cloud bursts.
“There are bones!” I exclaimed as the first stops (still outside the cave) showed us life-size figures of the animals whose bones have been found in the caves. It was a snapshot of the now-extinct megafauna of Australia’s Pleistocene period. Procoptodon goliah, the giant short-faced kangaroo that stood three metres high. The wombat the size of as rhino (Diprotodon). Then I saw my favourite Australian extinct animal, Thylacoleo carnifex. Imagine a creature the size of a leopard and just as adept at climbing trees, with retractile claws on its thumbs, front teeth like steak knives and side teeth like secoteurs that could crunch through the heaviest bones. According to Australian Museum it weighed 90 – 160 Kg. More closely related to possums, the harsh, guttural scream of these creatures would have been terrifying. Possums are bad enough, and they’re cute, fluffy and not predatory. Thylacoleo was an apex predator. It also would have preyed on humans — the megafauna only died out 40,000 years ago after Aboriginal settlement in Australia 60,000 or so years ago. Thylacoleo was also known as the marsupial lion and had the strongest bite of any mammal that has ever lived.
And here’s where it can get interesting — or bizarre. Australian folklore tells of a fearsome predator, a drop bear, which lurks in trees and drops on unsuspecting hikers from on high to rip out their jugulars. Australian Museum even has a fact sheet for Drop Bears, although they classify a drop bear as Thylarctos plummetus, which would put them in the same genus as koalas. https://australian.museum/learn/animals/mammals/drop-bear/
I respectfully disagree. I believe the original drop bear was Thylacoleo carnifex, more closely related to possums than koalas. The stories led to me writing a novella (which prompted the title of my second anthology) called “Cave of the Drop Bear”. Email me if you want to buy a copy, I still have a few.
So you can understand, I was even more keen to get to grips with a cave containing my favourite, fascinating marsupial.
When the rain eased off to a brief drizzle, we made a dash for the cave entrance. Those familiar with me will know I’m no longer a dashing figure. But we got to the entrance without getting soaked, and began our exploration of the drier interior.
If you know caves, you will understand that even inside, they drip, like a toddler with a permanent case of the sniffles. Water seeps down from the surface, soaks through the limestone and dissolves some on the way. Then it drips from the end of a projection and splashes below. Stalactites and stalagmites form from this dissolved limestone being slowly deposited over many thousands of years. For those needing a refresher — stalactites ‘hold on tight’ to the ceiling while stalacmites ‘might grow up’ to reach the ceiling. However, this part of WA (in fact, much of the state) had been experiencing a lot of rain. The drips were no longer just drips, they were trickles. But at least it wasn’t hailing inside the cave.
As we made our way through I became lost in thoughts of the past, of what it must have been like thousands of years ago. Around us we could see the evidence of past rockfalls, with stalactites now growing at odd angles to the true vertical. From what I could see, this area was a lot more volcanically active than the eastern Australian caves with which I am more familiar. An underground river flowed through the cave and the path climbed high (where we saw a Thylacoleo jaw encased almost completely in limestone) or down low, where the underground river flowed unusually full and heavy for the season.
At last we turned a corner and saw daylight; the exit to the cave at a sinkhole (just as in my novella) where tumbled rock surrounded a hole to the outer world. Steps led up to thick undergrowth and a leaden sky almost as dark as the inside of the cave. In my novella the sinkhole leads to a lost world of remnant species.
Outside the cave the temperature dropped, but it was green and lush as we walked back to the car. After clambering up and down steps inside the cave, I was only able to pick my way slowly through the bush. Then once more the heavens opened, and it began to hail. My medieval hood was very good protection.
I really love it when my interests come together so well.
We had just arrived in Perth to be met by wild weather coming in off the Indian Ocean. Three storm cells in sequence had been forecast with heavy ocean swells preceding them, making any outdoor activities, especially ones involving being on the water, totally out of consideration.
Perth wild weather feels different to Sydney weather. Or maybe where we were staying (at a gorgeous B&B we stumbled onto) was a bit more sheltered. The trees outside were tossing, we could hear rain (and hail) on the roof but there were still periods of less rain, when we could do a dash to the car.
Lunch with friends had been booked in King’s Park, the sun was even trying to peek out occasionally between dripping clouds. The road there was at times closed because storm surge had waves (on the normally quiet Swan River!) splashing over onto the freeway. We could see water levels well above normal. So much water!
At lunch we apologised for bringing the appalling NSW floods with us.
Whatever the weather, Perth is a beautiful city. It glistens. Although at times views were obscured, the mist only served to add to the romance.
Once the UK family arrived, a number of activities had been planned but had to be changed. Rottnest Island ferry was cancelled due to heavy seas, and the weather was foul anyway. So we went indoors. The aquarium!
It’s the Aquarium of Western Australia, or AQWA for short.
Getting there was a challenge. The rain had eased but the winds were blowing a gale. Cold, icy, the sort of wind to tangle your hair and make your ears ache. While the recent arrivals slept off the jet lag and the previous night’s excitement (they’d landed in Perth to a terminal in blackout due to storm damage) Jeff and I spent the morning exploring Fremantle. Once we got the nod to meet up at AQWA, we got on the road to Sorrento, in the north of Perth.
I’d brought some of my medieval clothing sewing to work on, including a caped hood (the buttonholes needed work). To save my suffering ears, I pulled on the hood then put my heavy jacket over the top. The jacket hid the liripipe of the hood nicely, nobody would know it wasn’t a standard clothing item. An unusual one, but I didn’t want to attract too much attention for my weirdness. And it did the trick — my ears were protected. Even the occasional rain scud didn’t soak through.
AQWA is a fascinating place to take a child who has never travelled outside the UK. Her head had been filled with stories of how scary Australia is, so we didn’t hold back. AQWA has sharks, rays and other denizens of the not-so-deep in a giant aquarium. Smaller tanks held other delights, but when you are safe from the beasts on a moving footway in a bubble under the tank, you can enjoy the experience once more. Our young friend was delighted to have sharks and a giant ray swim over her. Later, in a glass-bottomed boat, we floated over the sharks. In an aquatic petting zoo, she got to stroke a Port Jackson shark, a small, pretty gummy shark (no teeth). Sharks don’t feel scaly like other fish, they have skin like sandpaper.
Out on the deck it was wet from waves splashing over the sea wall and into the aquarium. Somehow appropriate…
The next morning was the dingo experience. The place we went to is a sanctuary, specialising in black cockatoos, but our young English friend got the chance to get up close and personal with a pair of dingoes.
People think of dingos like they think of dogs, but they are different. Even the species name reflects this — Canis lupus dingo. There is actually still some dispute over the scientific name. It used to be (and in some circles still is) Canis familiaris dingo. Dingoes can interbreed with domestic dogs to produce fertile offspring (this used to be considered a hallmark of creatures being the same species, just a different breed or sub-species) but the books are currently being rewritten.
We met our two dingo friends on harnesses being led for ‘walkies’ with their keepers. Dingoes greet by sniffing your breath and (if you are in favour) by licking your face. They have a very strong social rule system, and this was explained to us carefully. We spent a wonderful cuddly hour with these creatures before it was time to walk them back to their enclosure and meet the other animals in the park.
Next day we took ourselves off to the WA Museum, and the WA Art Gallery. The museum had a special exhibition on dinosaurs, and as museum junkies, we walked our feet off (metaphorically) exploring everything we could about Dinosaurs of Patagonia.
The dinosaurs were amazing and we were blown away by the size of the largest specimen. Jeff stood next to it and we realised, he was knee-high to the massive creature.
While much of a museum’s exhibits are not location-specific, there was a lot to learn about the area just from the building and the general exhibits.
It was the same in the Art Gallery (the buildings are next to each other). Some general art, but a strong focus on indigenous art from WA and we learned a lot about the state and its artists, especially their history.
We lunched in a kiosk between the galleries, sharing the space with some street-wise but reasonably well-behaved pigeons.
It was time for bed. We had an early start next morning, heading off to see what else WA had to offer. We could explore Perth in more outdoor detail, hopefully, when we returned.
It’s been three years since we last flew anywhere. Covid has had us in repeated lockdowns and our country’s borders were closed for all but the most essential travel. Government officials excepted, of course.
Even within Australia, crossing state borders was fraught. And at times, even going more than 10 kilometres from home for anything other than shopping needed a note from the doctor (not your parents).
But now, even as Covid still wreaks havoc (only more quietly, no more daily announcements at 11 am telling us how many more have died) restrictions are opening up and travel is once more permitted.
There’s an important family gathering in Perth, WA. That’s Western Australia, folks. Not Washington state in the US. So we’re flying over.
Given past events and challenges, we decided to go over early to at least get within state borders before any possible lockdown. Not likely, but not taking chances. Besides, weather in NSW has been horrible for most of the year, we’d like to get away from it and explore a sunnier state.
Our Sydney weather has been surprisingly pleasant over the last couple of weeks. The unfamiliar blazing ball of light in the sky has even had me dusting off my sunglasses.
For the week before, our usual stringent family Covid precautions ramped up a few notches. Masks when around anybody else outside the home; dash in-dash out shopping trips; no social events. We wanted no chance of catching Covid to sabotage the trip.
We watched weather forecasts. We wanted no airport closures to affect us either.
As flights have been coming back, problems have been exposed in the check-in and baggage systems. It became prudent to pack at least one change of clothing, plus essential medications, in the carry-on bags.
Weather reports for Sydney were for continuing sunny weather. NOW the sun comes out!!?! But for Perth, a negative Indian Ocean dipole was already spelling wetter weather there and across to Sydney, with news of three severe low-pressure systems coming in just in time for our arrival. Oh, joy…
By the time our day of departure dawned, we were already on the road. Our son was doing his weekend bread run early, just for us, dropping us and our luggage at the railway station before collecting his cargo of fresh loaves for the return trip.
We aimed to get to the airport early, we’d heard the horror stories of check-in queues and long delays. But in the end, it all went fast and smoothly. I had packed my sewing bag (small needle, no scissors or unpicker) with my book so I could sew on the plane. Or read. Security let it through. We kept our masks firmly on and did our best to stay away from the crowd. But as boarding time drew near, the departure lounge was filling up.
Nearby shops provided some distraction.
Boarding at last! Time to enter the tightly-packed steel tube about to hurtle through the sky.
I’ve been on bigger planes. I’ve been on smaller planes. This one was cramped, and packed full of people. Airlines are apparently determined to get as many fares as possibly on board every flight, to make up for the last two-and-a-half-years’ losses. We were warned that the flight was short on space for carry-on luggage and some people might have to send their carry-on via a later flight. So much for our planning to carry urgent essentials so they could stay with us, I thought. But we were lucky, our carry-on wasn’t offloaded.
I’m short, I don’t have legroom issues, but this plane was a squeeze for me. I could barely fit between the armrests in my middle seat of three. Wearing a heavy winter jacket didn’t help. The window seat passenger arrived, and he was a tall bloke. A landscape contractor, I later discovered. He did not fit well either, his long legs had to be splayed in order to fit in the space. On the other side of me, Jeff’s long legs had to be pulled in every time someone walked along the aisle.
Safety instructions are different now. They also include rules about wearing masks, including the injunction to leave them on, between mouthfuls of food or sips of water.
The flight was expected to be about four hours. We were ahead of the forecast bad weather, they said. But we might meet it along the way. The worst of the blow would be after our arrival.
I just wanted to get it over with.
I spent the flight squeezed into my seat, struggling to find where to plug in my headset then struggling again to find the buttons I needed to access to work the darn thing. I wanted to tilt my seat back but no way could I find THAT button! Meanwhile, to my left and right, both were manspreading into what little remained of my space. It was an unfortunate necessity for them due to the small legroom. While I have no concerns touching thighs with my husband, I did find it awkward to be on closer leg-rubbing terms with a total stranger.
We managed the meals, and a couple of glasses of juice. It was tricky, but we didn’t spill anything. I gave up on trying to do any sewing. I had no elbow room. Reading my book was enough challenge. I dropped my pencil at one point, and had to do without it for the rest of the flight. No way could I reach down there. Not without evicting both my fellow passengers and getting down on the floor.
Through the flight there were increasing announcements of our delayed arrival. Turns out the bad weather had sent its advance party, and we had a strong headwind. The flight eventually took five and a half hours. Cabin crew kept coming round to tell people to put their masks back on, and my brain was visualising Covid viruses floating freely around the cabin.
As we were coming in to land, the cabin crew urged me to tilt my seat back to the upright position. I was surprised — I hadn’t realised that my squashed thigh had been pressing against the seat tilt button on the armrest.
When we arrived we chose to wait in our seats while other passengers impatiently waited in the aisles for the next twenty minutes. Our fellow passenger continued to browse through catalogues of earthmoving equipment. We chatted a bit more. “I’m a FIFO worker,” he told me. [That’s Fly In, Fly Out]. “But this is my first flight to WA in years, I’m off to see a mate up north. I’ve been nervous of flying, with Covid. Hate it. Especially crowds.”
At last the crowd cleared and we had space to get out of our seats, grab our bags from the overhead locker, and get off the plane. It couldn’t happen fast enough for me.
It took another hour to get our bags, and after all the stories we’d heard, we were delighted to claim our own once more. It was a short walk to the car hire place, that process was much quicker.
It was cold, windy and damp, but the forecast torrential downpours weren’t happening. Yet. We’d rung Aunty Meg who said she’d made a batch of her famous creamy vegetable soup for us.
We got to Aunty Meg’s in mid-afternoon. She welcomed us with a fresh cuppa and a welcome chat. I got out my sewing.
The wind rose outside but the sky was still clear. It would be a cold night, but we’d be warm inside. Aunty Meg put the heater on, then commented, “It’s two hours later for you. I’ll put the soup on to heat up.”
Just then, the power went out. “It’s been doing that all day!” Aunty Meg remarked. “What a nuisance! The whole neighbourhood has been having momentary drop-outs in power.”
But not this time. Aunty Meg called the neighbour. “Is your power out again too? No?”
“Maybe you should check the fuse box,” Jeff suggested. “In case it’s a circuit breaker or something.”
With nothing to look at inside, all three of us traipsed out to the fuse box. We could smell burning plastic and could see sparks arcing across the circuit breaker, which hadn’t tripped. It should have. Jeff found something inert and used it to force the main breaker switch off. The sparks stopped.
It was a Sunday night. We rang emergency electricians and found nobody available. Aunty Meg’s previous electrician had moved ‘up north’ and she eventually found a new contact who was unable to attend that night but would be out first thing.
The power company came out to inspect, said it wasn’t their problem. “A good thing you managed to shut it off so promptly,” said the power company electrician. “The way this was installed originally, fire could have gone up into the ceiling, you could have lost the house.”
Meanwhile, nobody was going to have any soup so Aunty Meg and Jeff went searching for easy takeaway to eat by candlelight. I stayed and waited outside, where there was still a little light to read by.
It was a cold, dark night so we went to bed early. I’d used my phone briefly to connect to the internet and get emails. My battery was getting low. Meanwhile Jeff charged his in the car.
Next morning we were up and dressed early when the electrician arrived. We’d been able to tell him what had happened and what model of board components we had, so he arrived with the right parts and within fifteen minutes, we were back with power and light.
“It’s good it happened yesterday and not today,” he told us. “With the three big blows coming in, I’m going to be real busy for the next week, from tonight.”
The next night Aunt Meg’s daughter and family arrived from the UK. The big blow had hit hard and the airport terminal was in darkness. Most flights had been diverted, but with a plane low on fuel after a long haul, they made an exception.
Despite all this, Perth is really a very welcoming place. And at least we were here, not trying to cross the country by plane, in a narrow metal tube packed with mask-wearing people.
On our last full day aboard Southern Aurora we woke somewhere in NSW, with another early start. We were just sitting down to breakfast as we reached Albury railway station on our way back into Victoria.
Buses were waiting for us when we got to Benalla railway station. Once again we were kept in our Covid bubbles and had each been allocated to a specific bus depending on our train carriages and dining room seating plan.
The buses wound their way up into Victoria’s high country where our first stop was Chrismont Wines, a cool-climate vineyard in Cheshunt.
The views from the balcony at Chrismont were gorgeous. If I lived there I’m sure I’d never get any work done. We had a birds’ eye view across the vines, to the road and mountains beyond.
After a sampling of their best wines we all had lunch together before leaving to drive to Milawa, a small village in the heart of foodie country.
Our first encounter with Milawa was back in 1999, when our family spent a week in Bright. During our stay we drove around the Victorian Alps area as well as the gourmet areas nearby. Our cheese-loving daughter was delighted when we stumbled on Milawa Cheese Company. We’d also stopped in to Milawa Mustards and sampled some delicious relishes and mustards. As we were travelling with a family and on a tight budget, we bought mustards, relish and cheese, then stopped at the bakery for some crusty warm bread rolls. Then we drove out of town to find a quiet spot to have a family picnic on this glorious fresh local produce.
We’d told our now-adult children of our expectation to visit Milawa Cheese Company and knew they’d want us to ‘stock up’. The family favourite is Milawa Gold, almost impossible to find outside Milawa. It’s a creamy, strong-flavoured cheese, bold and with bite. Once tasted, it’s unforgettable.
We made a bee-line for the cheese counter and selected our favourites. The staff on the train had offered to store our perishable packages for us, in the fridges on board.
From Milawa we wound our way back on the buses through Wangaratta, to re-board the train in Albury.
Before we left Albury there were more speeches, and a surprise (for me). I don’t know why I hadn’t realised, but the staff on board this historic train were volunteers. They worked hard, their service and courtesy was gold standard, but they were there because they loved the train and the historic railway journeys.
The journey back to Sydney could have been sombre, as our adventure on Southern Aurora was drawing to a close. But we still had dinner, and breakfast next morning, to keep our mood relaxed and golden.
The train was taking us through a damp and misty Southern Highlands as we enjoyed breakfast next morning. After packing, we moved to the lounge car to chat to our new friends and listen to their excited arrangements for their next trip with St James Rail (stjamesrail), and Owen Johnstone-Donnet.
There are tours which take you to wonderful places; there are tours where you get to knew some wonderful people. There are tours where they spoil you rotten. We’d just had all three. Can’t wait for more!
It was time to once again board the Southern Aurora and head north.
Violet Town is a small Victorian country town that under many circumstances you’d blink and you’d miss it. It’s a pretty place, as many country towns are, with a railway station and level crossing. It’s reason for existence was purely as a stop on the rail line to Melbourne.
But in 1969 all that changed. On 7 February at just after 7 am, the Southern Aurora collided head-on with a goods train at an estimated combined speed of 172 km/h. Nine people were killed and 117 were injured. Both drivers were among the dead. The fireman of the goods train jumped clear at the last minute. The locomotive of the Southern Aurora and several of the leading goods carriages became airborne. Spilled fuel caught fire and added to the problems. It was an appalling mess.
Immediately afterwards, volunteers got busy searching for survivors, setting up communication and transport and providing what assistance they could.
The Southern Aurora had gone through three red signals and should have been stopped on a siding waiting for the goods train to pass. Instead, it sailed through without a pause.
What happened? It took a while to work it out, but it appeared that the Southern Aurora driver had a heart attack and was either unconscious or dead at the controls. But there should have been a back-up — the fireman and the guard should have been watching the signals in case the train disobeyed them. The fireman should have alerted the driver and/or the guard, and the guard had the ability to independently stop the train.
The inquest laid the blame with the Southern Aurora’s driver, fireman and guard. A bit unfair on the driver, since he was determined to have been dead at his post before the first signal was missed. It was believed the fireman had been boiling the kettle instead of checking on the alertness of the driver when the Vigilance Control alarm went off (after the train went through the first signal to stop) and the guard was claimed to have been dozing on and off and not watching the signals reliably. Other possible problems were not openly criticised but perhaps should have been. The doctor who cleared the driver to work even with a pre-existing heart condition. The Vigilance Control system should have been automated. The means for the guard and fireman to watch the signals needed cleaning and was difficult to monitor. And perhaps the relationship between the driver and the guard — the driver was in charge, the fireman may have been reluctant to challenge him or take control. That might have caused sufficient delay and confusion in the fireman’s mind, to allow the disaster to play out.
Following the inquest a number of improvements were made, notably to the Vigilance Control system, which now requires both driver and fireman to cancel it once triggered. The various factors which contributed to the Violet Town crash have been analysed and are no longer possible. Train travel these days is much safer as a result.
Due to the length of the train, it was unable to simply drop us off at Violet Town and wait. Instead, we were dropped off at Euroa railway station and took buses to Violet Town to have a good look at the Southern Aurora Memorial Garden there. We were met by local officials who explained what they have done here by creating the Southern Aurora Memorial Gardens.
The Gardens have a theme of Helping Hands, to honour all the people who stepped forward to offer assistance. Staff, passengers, injured, whole, locals, travellers — people just stepped up. The paths at the Memorial Garden are embedded with positive words reflecting the best of the human spirit. Courage. Hope. Generosity. Kindness. Love.
A central feature of this memorial is a sleeper carriage from a similar set to the ones involved in the accident. There are murals around the park, depicting various scenes from the 1969 incident.
The gardens are a place of peace, remembrance and recognition of what we all can do together when we step up to meet needs.
This is a small town where something big once happened. People came together to help under horrific and extraordinary circumstances and this should always be remembered.
Our food-filled adventure on Southern Aurora took a different turn in Melbourne.
While Southern Aurora waited for us somewhere at a siding in rural Victoria, the tour group was spending Anzac Day 2022 on the historic Puffing Billy steam train in Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges.
We had an early buffet breakfast in the hotel. Plenty of choice, and freedom to move around and make our selections, so we felt no impetus to eat everything put in front of us as captive diners. As a result, I was beginning to feel less over-full as we set out from Southern Cross for Belgrave, on the Victorian METRO rail service.
When we got to Belgrave we left the suburban train and walked down a ramp through leafy bush to the Puffing Billy platforms.
This narrow-gauge line was opened in December 1900 as a way to open up the remote areas in the Dandenong Ranges. It quickly became a tourist attraction, but it was a vital supply line to the people who chose to live in these hills. Not just mail and newspapers, but equipment, tools and even livestock. It made living in the Dandenong Ranges a viable concern. However, it was an expensive one and was eventually downscaled in importance as a result. When a landslide blocked the line in 1953, it was the final blow and the line was closed.
Public interest stepped in, boosted by media coverage. The Puffing Billy Preservation Society was formed and a combination of volunteers, CMF (Citizen’s Military Forces, these days called the Reserve Army) and also with a nod from the state government, bypassed the landslide and got the line reopened in stages.
At 11 am at Belgrave there was a short Anzac Day remembrance, and then we boarded the train. Again, in keeping with staying in our own Covid bubble as far as possible, we were allocated a carriage.
PuffingBilly’s carriages are open at the sides, a wide sill on each side with horizontal bars ensuring people can’t fall out, even if they choose to sit on the sill with their legs hanging out (surprisingly permitted along the first section of track where we were going).
As we wound up higher into the Dandenongs we could see small villages along the track, some of which were still having their Anzac Day services. People not involved with the services were waving to us as we passed, the little steam train clearly a local favourite.
There was a walking track for part of the way along the line as well, the commemorative Anzac Walk. QR codes allow walkers to hear the stories of the Emerald Anzacs who served. The vegetation varied between tall timbers or groves of palms.
Up at Lakeside we had lunch organised for us all (of course! More wonderful food!). We had some interesting speakers over lunch. One man, Graeme Legge, represented Emerald RSL (Returned Services League). He was born in Emerald, grew up there, his father served in WWI. He told us that 32 local Emerald men died in WWI and local communities developed the Anzac Walk to commemorate their sacrifice.
We had some time to wander around the beautiful and historic station, looking at some of the displays on the history of the Puffing Billy, before our return trip later in the afternoon.
Back in Melbourne we took advantage of the complimentary dinner that our tour host had arranged for us, although we still didn’t have room for much.
After dinner we decided to forgo the bright lights of Melbourne and instead avail ourselves of the free wi-fi (sadly lacking on the train) and catch up on emails.
We’d boarded this special anniversary run of Southern Aurora the evening before. A few wakeful moments but we slept fairly well and woke to dawn light streaming in our window, and southern NSW countryside flashing past. Just in time for breakfast. Because we’re early risers, we blessed being allocated to the first sitting.
The mist lay low on the paddocks as NSW countryside flashed past our window. Our table mates were a little late, there were a few missing heads in the dining room for the first breakfast sitting at 7 am.
We rolled in to Albury Station soon after breakfast (for us). The second sitting was going to be later, it had to wait until after the morning border crossing ceremonies.
With the early morning sun splashing gold over the heritage-listed Italianate station buildings, we gathered to hear some short speeches including one from sitting Federal MP, Sussan Ley. She mentioned the previous MP, Tim Fischer, who was well-known for his obsession with trains, including Southern Aurora. Tim’s funeral train also passed through Albury, paying respects for the many years of hard work he put in there. According to his wife Judy, Albury Railway Station was one of Tim Fischer’s favourite places. We certainly admired it for its architecture, its planning and the amazing length of it — 455 metres, the longest in Australia!
We left Albury just as “second breakfast” began. Although it was for other passengers and not us, we were finding that the food on offer, both the quality and quantity, was making us feel like well-fed hobbits. Instead of thinking of food, I took the opportunity to attempt a shower, in a tiny cabin bathroom of a train on the move.
The trick to showering on the train is to strip off in the cabin, outside the bathroom. Leave your clothes within reach outside the bathroom door. Toiletries (soap, shampoo etc) can fit neatly on the shelf under the mirror. Go into the bathroom, close the bathroom door, then slide the shower curtain around to also cover the bathroom door. There was a very thoughtfully-provided grab rail to hold onto when the train was going around a bend. Because the bathroom is so tiny, it’s easy to reach whatever you need.
I was sitting in the lounge car sewing when we pulled in to Violet Town to be met by some local dignitaries for the occasion. Southern Aurora has a special connection with Violet Town, which I will go into in a later episode.
We left Violet Town just as the first sitting of lunch began. Lunch? Who’s got room for lunch? But it was so delicious we managed to force it down. Other passengers at nearby tables were exclaiming in delight at the food. “As good as ever,” they said. “These St James Rail tours are about the food as much as the adventure.”
We weren’t going to starve, then.
It was mid-afternoon when we finally arrived in Melbourne, at Southern Cross Station (formerly Spencer St Station). We were to spend two nights in Melbourne in a hotel across the road from the station, but coming back to the same compartment on Southern Aurora after that. The staff (who had been waiting on us with such professionalism for our meals) were going to stay on the train while it parked at a siding somewhere out in the country. I hoped they were going to get some well-earned rest.
We left our bigger bag in the cabin and took a change of clothes in our smaller bags to the hotel.
And at the hotel, we met our first glitch. They were not ready with all the rooms. Despite knowing how many were arriving, and when, despite the bookings having been made several months ahead, they were not ready. We actually didn’t mind very much because being fed so well and so frequently, we had a sort of detached attitude soaking into every pore. But the hotel staff were profusely apologetic, and invited us to partake of their Swiss-influenced ‘death by chocolate’ happy hour.
It’s amazing how much chocolate you can still stuff in, even when you are full as a tick.
While we were tasting little pots of mousse or indulging in chocolate truffles, our tour organiser Owen was working hard on our behalf. He couldn’t get us into rooms any faster, but he did manage to gain a concession.
“I’ve asked them to compensate you in some way for the inconvenience of having to wait for the room,” he began.
I downed another chocolate truffle. Inconvenience? Oh, yes, I suppose so.
“They’ve offered you a complimentary dinner in the dining room,” he beamed.
Dinner? Where would we put it?
“Tonight or tomorrow night, what is your preference?”
“Tomorrow. Definitely tomorrow.” We were very much in agreement. Maybe by tomorrow night, we’ll be able to squeeze in a morsel of food.
Our room was finally available, so we dropped off our bags and headed out to explore Melbourne. Along the way we decided to find something very light for dinner. Soup. We headed for Chinatown which we found was packed. Really packed. There were long queues outside some places. We weren’t keen on crowds (Covid makes a person a bit paranoid) so we kept moving on.
Finally we found one place that seemed to have room. We had to wait, but that was okay. As we waited, I realised that it was the same place we’d visited in February 2020, just as the pandemic was starting in China. Back then, Melbourne’s Chinatown was almost deserted. We’d been the only customers for dinner in this very restaurant. Back then, we’d been served by an older Chinese woman who treated us like beloved children who needed to be nourished. And here she was again! Of course she did not remember us, but we remembered her.
I felt so bad for her when all we could order was one bowl of soup each.
She didn’t know that we were in no danger of starving.